Thursday, 29 December 2011

Amazonas - the Music of Brazil

No journey to Brazil would be complete without reference to music.  As part of my research for this blog I bought a copy of The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil which has been my background listening as I've blogged and researched about Amazonas.  It's a great album, with a thoughtful collection of tracks, including some 'golden oldies', like Chico Buarque to more modern artists, like Vanessa Bumagny.  Brazilian artists have contributed a lot to the world music scene it would be impossible to capture all of this in one blog post, so I'll concentrate on some of the main musical styles that I've been learning about. 


The music of the carnivals, Samba is arguably Brazil's most famous musical style.  In true Brazilian style, Samba is a real mixture of influences - African, European and indigenous - it seems to unite the country each year during the parades in Rio, Bahia, Sao Paolo and elsewhere.  It has a strong rhythmic style with a 2/4 beat that characterises samba dancing, combined with romantic melodies such as Aquarela do Brasil - one of the country's most famous songs.  Samba was popularised by Carmen Miranda in the Hollywood movies of the 1930's and 40's.  This clip from YouTube, shows Carmen Miranda singing Aquarela do Brasil in the 1943 movie, The Gang's All Here

Bossa Nova

Equally synonymous with Brazil is the style of music called Bossa Nova.  An offshoot of Samba that became popular in the 1960's, Bossa Nova is much slower, jazzier and more sophisticated than other Samba styles.  It was popularised by artists from Rio de Janeiro like Chico Buarque and artists from Bahia, like Joao Gilberto. 

Bossa Nova emerged at a time when jazz music was gaining mainstream popularity in the United States and a 1964 album Getz/Gilberto was a collaboration between Joao Gilberto and the American jazz musician, Stan Getz. Amongst its tracks was that most famous of Bossa Nova songs, known in English as The Girl from Ipanema.  This YouTube video is from the original recording by Getz/Gilberto and features Joao Gilberto's wife, Astrud, on the English-language vocals.


Much less well-known to the rest of the world are Brazilian musical styles such as Afoxé, a type of music that accompanies religious ceremonies of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion that is popular amongst the descendants of slaves in Salvador and Recife.  It's also very rhythmic, with strong vocal chanting.  The following YouTube video featuring a group called, Afoxé Oyá Alaxé will give you an idea of what the music sounds like. 


This stands for Música Popular Brasileira and is a mixture of samba, jazz, folk and the Brazilian version of 'pop' music.  The Rough Guide features a track by Chico Cesar, a singer/songwriter from Paraiba, a small state to the north of Pernambuco (Recife).  It's sing-along music, which has a very modern feel to it, as you can hear for yourself in the following YouTube video, a recording of Mama Africa, one of Cesar's most famous songs.   


Arguably even more popular in Brazil than Samba is Sertanajo, which is Brazil's version of Country and Western and is popular in those states at the heart of the Brazilian outback, like Mato Grosso and Parana.  The following YouTube video is by the famous brothers, Chitãozinho & Xororó who have sold more than 30 million albums, since they first started out in the 1970's.  They have gained some international recognition and seem to be quite a big deal in Brazil.


Perhaps the biggest surprise for me on The Rough Guide album, was a song called Coração by the Forro group, O Karaiva. Forro originates in the North East of Brazil and reminds me a lot of cajun music, I guess because of the use of accordions.  This might explain why Forro has become quite popular in countries like France, where accordions are also part of the traditional repertoire.  It also explains why I like it so much (being Irish!).  Unfortunately, I couldn't find a video of Coração on YouTube, so I've had to settle for another song by O Karaiva, called Xote Das Meninas (Ela So Quer).


Perhaps the most traditional Brazilian music style, Choro means 'lament' and immediately made me think of Portuguese fado.  Choro music uses a lot of guitar and, whilst I'm sure the lyrics are about lost love and heart-break, it seems to be a lot more upbeat than fado.  One of the most famous Choro songs is Tico-tico no Fuba, which was composed by Zequinha de Abreu in 1917.  The version from YouTube below, is by the flamboyant MPB singer Ney Matogrosso.

Other influences

The seven styles of music I've highlighted above are just a sample of the musical styles that have come out of Brazil.  Like many other countries, the musicians of Brazil have also embraced modern styles such as reggae, rap and rock.  There is a growing interest in tracing the roots of Brazilian styles back to Africa, especially the Lusophone countries of Africa, like Angola and Mozambique.  Brazilian artists are also well-known for experimental electronica and European Classical music has found its home in places like the famous Amazonas Opera House in Manaus. 

Indigenous music of the Amazon rain forest

It's a shame that indigenous music from the Amazon hasn't been given more exposure on compilations like The Rough Guide.  Although I've heard some indigenous music and chanting on programmes like Bruce Parry's Amazon, there seems to be very little out there, in terms of professional recordings of Brazil's indigenous music.  I have managed to find the following video on YouTube which shows Chief Paiaré, leader of the Akrãtikatêjês tribe, singing a traditional indigenous folk song in the Timbira language.  Enjoy!


Sunday, 18 December 2011

Amazonas - the World's Longest River?

It goes without saying that rivers have played an important part in the development of human civilisation.  In the age of air-travel, it's sometimes difficult to fathom the historical importance of rivers, whether as modes of transport or obstacles to colonisation.  Whilst researching for my partner blog Walking the Chesters, I was surprised to learn how much of an obstacle the River Severn was to the conquering Roman armies, as they tried to subdue Wales.

When I lived in Bangkok, I was impressed with the way that getting a boat down the Chao Praya is still used as a quick and easy method of travelling from one part of the city to another (certainly avoids all those traffic jams).  I know that some people use river transport on the Thames to get to work every day, but it's not really comparable, being the exception rather than the rule.  The Amazon is still a place where river transport is often the only logical option and I find that exciting, being so used to land- or air-based travel. 

Also, when I was blogging about Paraguay I learned that Paraguay is like a 'land-locked island', being surrounded on all sides by rivers, which made colonisation difficult for the conquistadors

Is the Amazon the longest river in the world?

Well, officially, the Amazon is the world's second-longest river, the longest river being the Nile.  It can be difficult to decide exactly how long a river is and the decision really depends on where you decide the mouth of the river is and where its true source lies.
The Nile by Michael Gwyther-Jones

How do you determine the 'true source' of a river?

The 'true source' of a river is understood to be the source of a river's tributary which is furthest away from the river's mouth.  Rivers tend to originate at high altitudes, as ice melts and flows downwards to the sea.  The world's longest rivers, including the Amazon and the Nile, have many tributaries which add volume to the rivers as they join them on their way to the open sea. 

Europeans have been interested in finding the source of the Nile since Greek and Roman times.  At various times in the past, the source of the Nile was believed to be in Ethiopia and even in places as far away as the Niger. The Victorians and their obsession with finding the answer to every question, were determined to locate the source of the Nile for once and for all. 

After the 'discovery' of Lake Victoria in 1858, there was a very famous public quarrel between the British explorers, Speke and Burton, as to which one of them had discovered the source of the Nile and whether the source was at Lake Victoria, or further south at Lake Tanganyika. Interestingly, the most remote source of the Nile is still undetermined in the 21st century, but believed to be at the Ruvyironza River in Burundi.

The Source of the Amazon

The 'most remote' source of the Amazon is believed to be at Nevado Mismi, in the south of Peru.  As part of my research for this blog, I watched Bruce Parry's fascinating TV series, Amazon.  Bruce started his journey at this 'official' source of the Amazon, on the Ucayali river.  Ed Stafford, the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon (finishing in August last year), also started his journey at Nevado Mismi.  

The Amazon by CIFOR

Other major river sources

The source of China's longest river, the Yangtze, is believed to be at Geladaindong Peak in Qinghai province near the border with Tibet.  The Mississippi River is believed to start at Lake Itasca in Minnesota.  Russia's longest river, the Yenesei flows from its source at Mungaragiyn-Gol in Mongolia all the way to the Arctic ocean.  Western Europe's longest river, the Rhine is a real minnow, in world terms, being the 123rd longest river.  It has its source at the Tomasee in Switzerland.

The rivers of the Amazon

The thing that has suprised me most, on this learning journey, is that the Amazon is really a sum of its parts, rather than one single river.  Although I'd not heard of any of them before I started researching for this blog, I've come to realise that the Amazon's tributaries are magnificant rivers in their own right. 

I'm listing some of the main tributaries of the Amazon below.

First are the Negro and Branco, the black and white rivers. The Negro comes in from Columbia and is the world's largest 'blackwater' river, ie. a slow-flowing river that winds through forested wetlands and swamps.  The quality of the earth it flows through is incredibly poor and it's called Negro (black)because of the tannins that leach into the river, giving it a tea-stained colour.  In Bruce Parry's Amazon, there is an interesting shot of the Amazon/Negro confluence, where the dark waters of the Negro add a cloudy mix to the clearer waters of the Amazon.

The Japura also rises in Columbia and flows into the Solimoes, a river with several names, also called the Ica in Brazil and the Putumayo as it forms the border between Columbia and Peru.
The Napo river comes in from Ecuador and the Ucayali comes from the official source of the Amazon in Peru. The Juruá river also comes in from Peru, as does the Purus.  
People of the Amazon by CIFOR

The great Bolivian rivers such as the Beni and Mamoré join the river Madeira just after Porto Velho, where they flow on to meet the Amazon just east of Manaus. Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia, was built to serve the needs of the Mamoré-Madeira railway.  An unsuccessful attempt to link Bolivia with the Amazon and ports of the Atlantic, the Mamoré-Madeira railway cost millions of dollars and thousands of lives to build.

The Madeira is the Amazon’s biggest and, arguably, most important tributary.  I've learned that the name madeira, also the name for the Atlantic archipelago, comes from the Portuguese word for ‘wooded’. The Madeira-Mamoré is pretty impressive, being only slightly shorter than the Volga, it's the world’s 19th longest river.

The Amazon’s eastern-most tributaries, the Tapajós, the Iriri and the Xingu all rise in Brazil. They mostly flow through Amazonas' neighbouring state, Pará.  They are the closest to ‘civilisation’ and, therefore, quite often the scene of mass deforestation and conflict between the indigenous people and the corporations that are keen to exploit the Amazon region's resources.  Currently, the most controversial project is the proposed construction of the Belo Monte Dam, which faces opposition by indigenous peoples such as the Kayapo of the Xingu river.

The Araguaia and Tocantins rivers aren’t really tributaries of the Amazon, but both flow into Atlantic at Ilha de Marajo, close to the mouth of the Amazon.

Aerial view of the Amazon by CIFOR
A sobering fact for someone from Western Europe is that, even the shortest of the Amazon tributaries that I've just mentioned - the Iriri - is still longer than the Rhine!

The Amazon-Congo river?

One interesting hypothesis is that the Amazon and Congo were once part of the same river system, which drained into (what is now) the Pacific ocean.  When the continental shelves divided, separating Africa from South America and after the Andes rose, it's posited that the Amazon changed direction to flow into (what is now) the Atlantic ocean.  If this hypothesis is true, then it means the Amazon-Congo was the longest river in history, at an estimated 7,500 miles (12,000 km).

Image credits:

The view of the River Nile is by flickr member Michael Gwyther-Jones who is an architect from Cardiff in Wales.  You can see more of Michael's photos on his photo stream.

The photos of the Amazon were posted on Flickr by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a nonprofit, global facility dedicated to advancing human wellbeing, environmental conservation and equity.  They have a really interesting website where you can find out more about the work that they do. 

Thanks to Michael and CIFOR for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Amazonas - A World made of Rubber

Before I started researching for this blog, I'd always assumed that rubber is something that has been around since time immemorial.  So widespread is the use of rubber these days that it's hard to imagine a world without it.  But I was surprised to find out that rubber wasn't known in Europe until the 18th century, when the French explorer, Charles Marie de la Condamine, brought back some samples, after a trip he'd made to the Amazon region. 

So what is rubber?

Natural rubber (or gum rubber) is a solidified form of the milky liquid latex which is produced by a variety of plants, including plants like DandelionsLatex from the Para Rubber Tree (Hevea Brasilensis) of the Amazon region, can be collected in containers and made into the elasticated form of rubber that we all know and love.  Latex itself, like a lot of plant sap, evolved as a defense mechanism for trees, to protect their leaves and barks from insects and animals.  It's not surprising that many people are allergic to latex (which includes being allergic to sticking plasters or Band-Aids).  Latex and rubber are nowadays combined with more toxic substances, which could also be the cause of allergic reactions. 

The origin of the word

The word that La Condamine used to describe the sap from the Amazon trees was caoutchouc, believed to be an approximation of the word cahuchu (basically, tree sap) from the Tupi language.  It's the term that is used in languages like French, Spanish and Catalan.  Many other languages use some form of the word gum - Gummi (German), gomma (Italian).  In Portuguese, it's borracha, which came from the Spanish term for a 'skin on wine' (but now means 'drunk' in Spanish!).  The Portuguese word seringa (English syringe) has also been used to describe rubber.  It's quite telling that the first thing the English did with this new substance was use it to rub out pencil marks (hence the term rubber).  I'm sure many a 19th century English bureaucrat's life was revolutionised by this new substance!

Rubber plantation by goosmurf
Rubber around the world

19th century Brazilians refused to believe that rubber could be produced anywhere else in the world, but they were proved wrong by the English explorer, Henry Wickham, who brought seeds from the rubber plant back to Kew Gardens in London and ultimately to the British rubber plantations in Ceylon and Malaya.  The advent of the Industrial revolution, the motor car industry and two World Wars led to a boom in rubber production in the ex-British colonies and a sharp decline in rubber production in the Amazon region.  Manaus and Belem, the capitals of Amazonas and Para, also went into a decline and have never really recovered their erstwhile glory. When we talk about natural rubber production today, it's all about Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Rubber and coffee

As I outlined in a previous blog post, Brazil has become the world's leading coffee producer, although this plant has its origins in the highlands of Ethiopia.  Whilst rubber still grows naturally in the Amazon region, attempts at creating large-scale rubber plantations have failed miserably (have a look at this blog post about the failed Fordlandia and you'll see what I mean!). 

In their natural environment, rubber trees need to be separated by irregular distances, to prevent pestilence and blight.  Outside their natural environment, rubber trees function well in concentrated plantations, as they no longer have an equal concentration of 'natural enemies'.  In the same way, coffee has thrived in Brazil and I can't help but wonder whether all of this wasn't meant to be?

Rubber ducks by Felix63
Rubber production in the 21st century

In the 20th century, the Russians, Germans and British managed to find ways of producing rubber synthetically, which is capital-intensive, but not labour-intensive and therefore more suitable for economies where labour costs are high.  72% of today's natural rubber is produced in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but India and China are the world's biggest consumers of natural rubber. 

For a variety of reasons, the production of natural rubber is in decline and, according to The Rubber Economist Ltd, there is likely to be a shortage of natural rubber in the near future.  A quick look at statistics from the ANRPC (The Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries) shows that the price of natural rubber has doubled in the past two years.  I wonder if natural rubber is going to become somewhat of a luxury item in years to come?

Things we use rubber for

Balls - rubber balls have existed in the Amazon region for a very long time and, along with rudimentary footwear, this seems to have been the main use for rubber in traditional Amazonian societies.

Waterproof clothing - the Scottish inventor, Charles Macintosh, found an even better use for rubber than his English counterparts, ie. in creating water-proof clothing, certainly a very useful invention for Scotland and the world!  Macintosh is responsible for the process of vulcanisation which helps turn latex/rubber into a more durable product.

The Car Industry - the boom in rubber was partly a result of the development of the motorcar industry and the use of rubber in car tyres.  I'd imagine most natural rubber tyres have now been replaced with more durable and economically viable synthetic versions.

Erasers - I remember we used to collect these, when I was at school, in the same way that you might collect fridge magnets or other souvenirs.  I'm not sure I've used erasers much since I left school - except the virtual ones that live on, in digital form!

Unlearning by Jacqueline Tinney
Rubber-bands - the weapon of choice for school bullies, as well as an essential item of office stationery, despite living in an increasingly digitalised world. 

Rubber has also entered the most intimate parts of our lives:

Teats for dummies/pacifiers/soothers - rubber has also replaced that most sacred area of human contact, between a baby and its mother, although in recent years, the practice of breast-feeding is once again coming into fashion. 

Condoms - as well as enabling Europeans to conquer half the world, by providing us with quinine, the Amazon region has also, arguably, given us a solution to the world's growing population.  There is some speculation as to whether condoms are named after La Condamine.  Whilst 'reproductive barriers' have been around for a long time, using latex to produce condoms has given the world a more fail-safe and cost-effective way of controlling reproduction.  No small legacy, to be sure!

Fetish wear and sex toys - rubber and latex products have also been used to produce clothing, which has become a bit of a fetish in the modern world.  Rubber has become like a 'second skin' for fetishists, which I guess means that you are somehow 'naked' when you wear rubber clothing.  For hygenic reasons, natural and synthetic rubbers are also used to produce sex toys. 

There are many, many more uses of rubber in 21st century life - along with plastic and wood, we've constructed a world made of rubber. 

Image credits:

The image of the rubber plantation in Malaysia was taken by flickr member goosmurf aka Yun Huang Yong, who lives in New South Wales, Australia.  You can see more of Yun's work on his website.

The image of the rubber ducks is by flickr member Felix63 - you can see more of his photos on his photostream

The wonderful image of a baby's soother (dummy, pacifier, whatever!) is by flickr member jacquelinetinney who is from Nottingham in England.  You can see more of Jacqueline's photos on her website.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Amazonas - Wonder Woman in a Man's World

When the 16th-century Spanish explorer, Francisco de Orellana, led a break-away expedition from (what is now) Ecuador, down the Napo river into (what is now) Brazil, he encountered a war-like native tribe made up of women, who fought back against the plundering Europeans with as much fierceness as any of their male counterparts.  Orellana told the world about this fierce tribe of women and the myth of the ancient Amazonians was reborn and immortalised in the name of the world's greatest river.

The Amazonian myth

Amazon frieze by London Looks
I guess, the Amazonian tribes have always represented resistance to colonisation.  The ancient Amazonians lived around the Black Sea area, on the edges of the Greek and Roman empires, in modern-day Ukraine and northern Turkey.  The origin of the term, Amazon, is obscure - it could come from the Greek μαστος (mastos) 'breast', with the prefix 'a' meaning 'without/no', in reference to the myth that Amazonian women cauterised their right breasts, so it would be easier to shoot arrows and launch spears.  Another theory is that the word comes from the Persian hamazan which simply means 'warriors'.

Great Women throughout History

However you look at it, the ancient Amazonians have come to symbolise the power of women to resist domination by men, even in that most manly of pursuits, war.  Throughout history, women have proved their worth in terms of leadership and war, whether it was Boudica leading the ancient Britons in rebellion against the Roman invaders, Joan of Arc fighting back against the English or Yaa Asantewaa, who led the Ashanti rebellion against the British in Ghana, or the more diplomatic manoeuvres of Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba, or Khoja Iparhan.  That's not to mention the powerful women of world mythologies; Artemis, Kali, Oya, Marishi-Ten, Medhbh, Freyja, Ishtar and Vishpala, to name but a few!

Wonder Woman and the Amazons of Themyscira

Wonder Woman by Mark Anderson
20th century feminism was also bolstered by the role that women played in the two World Wars.  Perhaps, it's no surprise then that the 1940's saw the birth of another Amazonian heroine, Wonder Woman, who was dreamed up by DC Comic book writer, William Moulton Marston.  I grew up watching Wonder Woman, aka Diana of Themyscira on my TV screen, due to the 1970's adaptation of the comic book series about Wonder Woman and her Amazonian sisters. 

Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman in the TV series, is a fabulous-looking woman, of mixed Irish and Mexican heritage and was a former Miss World USA, which seems somehow at odds with her portrayal of Wonder Woman in the TV series.  I guess readers of this blog who didn't grow up in the 70's or 80's, will relate more to Xena Warrior Princess, another modern Amazonian. 

Brazil's own Amazonian Warrior

On the 1st of January this year (2011), Dilma Rousseff was inaugurated as Brazil's first female president.  Despite being from a fairly affluent middle-class background, Dilma belongs to the Worker's Party of Brazil and has a fascinating life-story, starting out on her political career in the 1960's, as a young student Marxist revolutionary.  She has been associated with Colina (Comando de Libertação Nacional), a far-left organisation that advocated guerrilla warfare against the state and she was captured by the Brazilian military in 1970 and allegedly tortured for 22 days. 

Female World Leaders
President Rousseff by Agencia Brasil

Dilma's father was Bulgarian and her election caused quite a stir in Bulgaria, which is also on the Black Sea and very close to the original 'homeland' of the ancient Amazonians!  Other countries, including Ireland, have had female presidents in the past and I've counted 8 countries that currently have female presidents (not including countries like the UK, where Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal Head of State).  This list includes; Finland, Liberia, India, Argentina, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, Costa Rica and Kosovo. 

A further 10 countries have female Prime Ministers or leaders, including; Germany, Bangladesh, Iceland, Croatia, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, Slovakia, Mali, Thailand and Denmark.  It's interesting to note that the current list of female leaders is not as dominated by Europe and 'the West', as one might assume.  Whilst it's great to see modern women around the world gain this level of political recognition, it's still only 18 countries out of 204 (recognised) states, which means more than 90% of the world's countries currently have men at the top of their political ladders. 

Image credits:

The image of the frieze depicting an Amazonian woman was taken by flickr member London Looks, a native Tennessean who currently lives in South London.  The original frieze can be seen at London's British Museum and you can see more of London Look's work at

The image of Wonder Woman is by cartoonist, Mark Anderson, who lives in the Chicago and has shared this image via Flickr.  You can more of Mark's work on his website

Thanks to London Looks and Mark Anderson for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

The image of Dilma Rousseff, the current President of Brazil, is from Wikimedia Commons and has been released as the official photo of Brazil's president by Agência Brasil.  My use of this image to illustrate my blog post does not mean than my blog is endorsed in any way by the image creator.  You can see a full description of the Image's origin at its wikimedia page